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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Saltan' Pleases Despite Mishaps

As its contribution to Moscow's 850th birthday celebrations, the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater has unveiled a happy new staging of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's happiest operatic creation, "The Tale of Tsar Saltan."


Based on the fairy tale in verse by Alexander Pushkin, "Tsar Saltan" has nothing at all to do with Moscow, apart from the the city serving as the site of its very first performance 97 years ago. Nevertheless, and despite certain mishaps, it proved a fine addition to Moscow's festivities, as well as to the theater's very limited operatic repertoire.


Chief among those mishaps was the abrupt departure, just 10 days before the premiere, of Vladimir Ponkin, the scheduled conductor and the theater's musical director for the past year.


His last-minute replacement, a young conductor from Perm by the name of Ara Karapetyan, managed on opening night to at least hold things together and even showed promise of someday doing real justice to the score.


The Tsar Saltan of the opera's title is the merry and slightly mad ruler of a mythical kingdom called Tmutarakan. One day, while Saltan is off fighting a war, the wicked Baba Babarikha succeeds in sending his beautiful young wife, Militrisa, and infant son, Guidon, out to sea encased in a barrel.


Landing on a barren island with his mother, Guidon almost instantly grows to manhood. Setting off on a hunting expedition, he rescues a beautiful swan from the claws of a predatory kite. The swan rewards him with a miraculous kingdom and, transforming herself into human form, becomes his bride.


Word of Guidon's kingdom and its marvels reaches Saltan. He immediately sails off to see it all for himself, and eventually joins both wife and son in a happy reunion.


"Tsar Saltan" contains what is probably Rimsky-Korsakov's best known bit of music, "The Flight of the Bumblebee." That brief minute and the rest of the opera's two-hour-long score amount to a almost unbroken flow of delicious and enticing melody, much of it taken directly from Russian folk song, and all of it orchestrated with the composer's usual cunning.


For the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko production, designer Yury Ustinov sets the action against a series of backdrops subtly populated with Chagall-like figures. Overhead fly six gigantic white wings, which move about to underscore the action. With a colorful and often whimsical array of costumes by Irina Akimova, the visual effect repeatedly calls to mind the typical Russian fairy-tale paintings and illustrations of bygone times.


Alexander Titel, responsible for the superb "La Boheme" seen at the same theater over the past two seasons, as well as the Bolshoi's wondrous, and now sadly discarded, 1990 staging of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Christmas Eve," moves "Tsar Saltan" at a heady pace, making the most both of its hilarious moments and of the touching scenes which involve Militrisa, Guidon and the Swan Princess. Only his work with the chorus seems to lack clear definition and purpose. Perhaps matters there will improve as the production works its way into the theater's repertoire.


Outstanding among the cast on opening night was the lovely Olga Goryakova, in the role of Militrisa, who proved once again that she commands perhaps the finest soprano voice to be heard these days in Moscow. Leonid Zimnenko played a properly bumptious Saltan, singing in a rich and resonant bass, while mezzo-soprano Olga Aleksandrova extracted every bit of juicy evil from the role of Babarikha. Deserving special applause, as well, was the fine group of children choristers and mimes, and among them, particularly, young Seryozha Melnik with his thoroughly assured Bumblebee.


"Tsar Saltan" makes for a hugely entertaining time at the opera. And though brimful of sophisticated music and sophisticated humor, it is definitely a show to be enjoyed by audiences of all ages.


Vladimir Ponkin's departure must surely be seen as a grave loss to the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko. Though he made few appearances during his brief tenure as musical director, his work last season with Verdi's "Otello," in particular, gave reason to believe that musical performance at the theater might at long last approach the level of its better stagings. For now, the theater badly needs a replacement of similar skill and inspiration.


For the remainder of the current season, the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko plans two more new opera stagings, both of works rarely heard in Moscow.


In late January or thereabouts, the very talented Vladimir Ziva from Nizhny Novgorod will lead Jules Massenet's "Thais," and sometime late in the spring, the theater expects to present Gaetano Donizetti's comic delight, "The Elixir of Love."


"The Tale of Tsar Saltan" will next be performed Oct. 25.


Tickets can be purchased at the box office of the theater, 17 Pushkinskaya Ulitsa. Tel. 229-8388. Nearest metro: Chekhovskaya, Pushkinskaya, Tverskaya.